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Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes (Amazon commission earned)2.5 stars

[Spoilers included.]

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAs a lover of space opera horror, I’ve often wondered why such entertainment is so easy to come by in movies and video games — with Alien and Event Horizon being perennial top contenders — and yet so rare in books. Surely, there must be no shortage of science fiction writers who love a good scare in the darkened confines of some abandoned starship. So where are all my space opera horror books?

Stacey Kade, writing under her horror pseudonym S.A. Barnes, shows up with her game face on, more than eager to deliver what we’ve all been missing for so long. And for the first 200 pages of Dead Silence, she does. Boy, does she ever! Of course any critic worth their salt is going to critique a book based on the book that it is and not the book they wish it had been. But I can’t help being crushed by the unfortunate turn it takes in the final third, as the novel, which comes this close to genuine greatness, becomes a predictable exercise in “been there, done that.” Ultimately, my 2½-star bottom line splits the difference pretty well, because for me, this book was half perfection and half tragic disappointment.

It’s 2149 and Claire Kovalik is the team leader of a five-person repair crew servicing remote communications satellites out in the back forty of the solar system. But she, along with her whole crew, is being made redundant, as the job of doing physical repairs and upgrades to these beacons is about to be taken over by robots. All Claire has to look forward to for the foreseeable future is driving a desk, and the prospect fills her with such intense depression that in the book’s opening scene, she’s already displaying suicidal ideation.

Claire is a profoundly mentally unhealthy person. As a small child, she was the sole survivor of a plague that ravaged a tiny colony on Mars, and for months before being picked up by search and rescue she had been living alone among the dead. This would be horrific enough for anyone, let alone an 11-year-old kid. But Claire has been able to make a career for herself running these repair teams in the depths of space, mainly because the remoteness is comforting to her. She has not told any of her crew (few of whom can stand each other, and especially her) about her past, nor the way she feels to blame for what happened.

Finishing up the last repair job on their last run, Claire’s crew picks up — of course — a distress signal from way out in the Kuiper Belt, where no ship should be. We readers immediately know this is the first announcement of terror to come, like that moment at the beginning of haunted house stories where the eager young couple says “Wow! It’s such a beautiful old house, and so cheap!” And this is our cue to chuckle with gleeful anticipation and settle in for the ride. The signal is eventually traced to the derelict vessel Aurora, an inconceivably huge and opulent deep space luxury liner for the ultra-rich that vanished without trace twenty years before. It’s too big for their tiny repair craft to tow. But after some debate, Claire decides that the salvage rights could be massive enough to provide all of them with financial independence, and the fateful decision is made to board the Aurora to recover artifacts that will help prove and secure their claim.

The next several chapters give all us hungry horror fans exactly what we’re after. No spoilers yet, but Claire’s team — including arrogant pilot Voller, introverted computer nerd Nysus, wide-eyed newbie communications tech Lourdes, and (in the book’s most overt homage to Alien) Kane the medic — discover that something deeply horrific, above and beyond just some catastrophic engine failure or life support malfunction, befell the Aurora’s crew and passengers. The author shows exceptional skill in how she builds her best scares with a subtle touch, like a sound in the background or a glimpse of something in the distance that shouldn’t be there. It’s effective, and the deeply creepy vibe is hard to beat. I also enjoyed the little detail of how Nysus discovers video footage from some of the passengers, specifically a couple of rich-girl influencers making their own reality show, that reveals some of the final moments of terror-stricken passengers. It’s both a satirical jab at online insta-fame culture and a chilling hat-tip to the found-footage aesthetic that works remarkably well in narrative context.

And then… everything just kind of stops being awesome.

From the beginning, we’ve known Claire’s crew isn’t going to make it, because the book opens with the familiar framing device of Claire being interrogated back on Earth by a good-cop-bad-cop pair of corporate goons. At around the 200-page point, the story suddenly undergoes a whiplash-inducing shift. The framing story becomes the principal narrative. And just as we were really getting invested in Claire and her crew and following the chilling clues they were uncovering — in an instant, we’ve jumped months into the future, and Claire is back on Earth being prepped to, of all things, accompany an armed security team back to the Aurora under the leadership of our new villains, Cliché Corporate Bad Guy #1 and Cliché Corporate Bad Guy #2.

To truly give you a sense of just how WTF this is, allow me to make an analogy to Alien, which I’m going to assume nearly all of you have watched at least once. What if, in Alien, right at the moment the chest burster exploded out of John Hurt at the dinner table, there was — freeze frame, record scratch — a massive jump cut, and suddenly Sigourney Weaver is back on Earth in a hospital bed, bewildered, suffering amnesia? “How did I get here? Where’s my ship? What happened to my crew?” And then we just jump right into Aliens, without any sense of closure as to the fate of the Nostromo’s crew, and the evil plans of Weyland-Yutani simply being told to us in exposition rather than discovered by Ripley in one of the movie’s most shocking moments? This is exactly what Barnes does in Dead Silence. And it’s maddening!

Sure, Barnes’s craft cannot be faulted, and even here she delivers a propulsive and exciting climax. But it’s a climax whose tone feels more suited to a different book. Dead Silence begins as glorious, bloodcurdling deep space horror and then abandons all of that to become a boilerplate sci-fi action thriller. Honestly, must everything in stories like this be the fault of devilish conspiracies by an evil monolithic corporation? Evil corporations are to science fiction as dark lords are to classic fantasy, a lazy one-size-fits-all bad guy representing a one-dimensional archetype of villainy. But this, believe it or not, isn’t even the worst of this novel’s sins.

There is an explanation given for the phenomena aboard the Aurora that has some actual basis in science, though Barnes has certainly exercised ample creative license in getting it to suit the needs of her story. It’s not unconvincing, and savvy readers will even predict it. But there’s one more thing about Claire: she sees ghosts for real, and has been seeing them for a long time, on the regular. It would be easy to explain away her sightings of her mother and childhood best friend as residual trauma from her personal experiences in the Martian colony. But Claire sees specters of nearly anyone whose death is tied to a place or circumstance. She shocks people by seeing ghosts of those she never knew in life, but whom they did. And how and why Claire can do this is never explored or explained. But what it means for the story is that Barnes has set a rule for her future, and it is that ghosts exist, and supernatural phenomena happen.

So, knowing this, why tell us a story about people experiencing hallucinatory hauntings, seeing imagined ghosts and visions of loved ones? Dead Silence could have just leaned all the way into its horror aspirations, based on the rules its author established, and delivered a balls-out deep space frightfest for the ages. But no. It pulls back, gives us a smoke-and-mirrors explanation that almost negates every shiver the early scenes sent down our spines, and recycles the most hackneyed tropes it can find.

Sigh. Deep deep sigh. I won’t tell you not to check this book out, especially if you’re as hungry as I’ve been for this kind of story and think you might be more forgiving of bad author choices than I am, if there’s even the slightest reward to be had. And I can’t lie. Those early scenes exploring the Aurora are absolute bangers. But I continue to wait for the complete, rewarding experience of space opera horror as it should be. I wait, and so far, all I hear is dead silence.